from the huh? dept
When it comes to trademark law, it’s worth repeating that its primary function is to prevent customer confusion and to act as a benefit for consumer trust. This mission has become skewed in many ways in many countries, but one of the lessons learned via the Washington Redskins fiasco is that even well-meaning attempts to have government play obscenity cop will result in confusing inconsistency at best and language-policing at worst. When government begins attempting to apply morality to trademark law in that way, it skews the purpose of trademark entirely.
To see that on display elsewhere, we need only look to Hungary, where the government is considering stripping the trademark protection for some of the branding for Heineken beer because it resembles the ever-scary demon that is communism.
The rightist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which faces an election in April 2018, says it is a “moral obligation” to ban the commercial use of symbols such as the swastika, arrow cross, hammer and sickle, and the red star. Heineken has had a star logo on its beer for most of the years since it was first brewed in the second half of the 19th century, changing to a red one in the 1930s. The star is thought to represent a brewers symbol or the various stages of the brewing process. But the red star was also a major symbol of Soviet communism and used to appear on the crest of communist-era Hungary.
Which, frankly, is entirely besides the point. It should be immediately clear how silly this sort of thing is. Stripping trademark rights for symbols tangentially related to causes a government doesn’t like is bad enough, but outright banning their use in commerce is obviously a statist act by government. It does nothing to benefit the consuming public, one which will already be quite familiar with Heineken and its branding, and instead is a move designed to play on the strain of nationalism currently weaving its way through much of the West. But it accomplishes nothing concrete. Heineken isn’t communism, no matter how many red stars it puts on its labels.
But dumb ideas like this necessarily come with even more extreme consequences.
Under the new law, businesses using these symbols could be fined up to 2 billion forints (€6.48 million) and jail sentence.
The danger in allowing the government to play language police in this way should be clear. Fortunately for us, this particular case in Hungary eschews the slippery slope entirely and instead simply jumps off of the corruption cliff.
Last week Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who jointly submitted the bill with Orbán’s chief of staff Janos Lazar, was quoted as saying that the red star in Heineken’s logo was “obvious political content”. At the same time, Semjén did not deny that the ban was linked to Heineken’s legal battle with a small, partly locally-owned beer maker in Romania’s Transylvania — home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians — over the use of a popular brand name there.
That’s where this always will eventually lead, with government taking this sort of power and abusing it to favor one company over another. Hungary simply did us the favor of putting that on immediate display. If you’re going to go full corruption, after all, why bother hiding it?